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The inverse relationship of empathy and power
“The higher a baboon climbs a tree, the more who can see his ass” — African Proverb
In the last article, we examined the critical role of empathy in increasing collective intelligence. For groups to consistently perform well on a wide range of tasks it needs to be composed of members that are highly socially sensitive. Members that lack social sensitivity drag the performance of the group down.
Unfortunately, however, research has found, as poetically implicated in the African proverb above, it’s those with the most power who are typically the least sensitive: leaders, bosses, experts.
Why does this occur and what can be done about it?
With great power comes great egocentricity
Research by social psychologist Adam Galinsky and his collaborators implicates that power reduces our ability to understand how others see, think, and feel1. As we rise in power, it becomes more difficult for us to consider other’s perspectives, less able to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’. Power and empathy are inversely related.
It’s not that the powerful have a character flaw per se, but, like everyone, they possess a vestige of evolution that is not necessarily optimal for the 21st Century. Mentalising (thinking about others' thoughts and feelings) activates specific parts of our brain2. It turns out these particular neural circuits are utilised mostly by individuals with low social status3, and appear to atrophy in those who obtain power.
We can witness this in everyday interactions. Those with lower social status typically exhibit more engagement signaling — more eye contact, head nodding, laughing, etcetera. Conversely, people with higher status typically exhibit more disengagement cues — more self-grooming, fidgeting, doodling, etcetera.4
Importantly, those with lower status have greater empathetic accuracy: they are better at inferring the emotional states of others than their higher-status associates5.
From an evolutionary perspective, it may be that less powerful individuals, being highly reliant on each other to secure resources, are intrinsically motivated to understand other’s thoughts and feelings6. The powerful, on the other hand, feeling secure in their ability to obtain whatever resources they desire, couldn’t care less about what others think or feel.
In addition, from a cognitive processing perspective, dialing down empathy might be an automatic response when individuals have to deal with heavy responsibility, helping them ‘shut out the noise’ of multiple other’s perspectives in order to focus on priorities.
A matter of perspective-taking
If reduced perspective-taking7 is an emergent property of increased power, and if that, in turn, reduces the collective intelligence of teams, then we have a problem, Houston.
It is impractical to attempt to eliminate power, and nor should we. As Dacher Keltner writes8:
Power defines the waking life of every human being. It is found not only in extraordinary acts but also in quotidian acts, indeed in every interaction and every relationship, be it an attempt to get a two-year-old to eat green vegetables or to inspire a stubborn colleague to do her best work. It lies in providing an opportunity to someone, or asking a friend the right question to stir creative thought, or calming a colleague’s rattled nerves, or directing resources to a young person trying to make it in society. Power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, between romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others.
No, we need to work with power.
If we want to build collectively intelligent teams and organisations (we do!) then we need to design ways of doing so within the constraints of our biology.
The three combinatorial strategies available to us are:
For the powerful to improve their perspective-taking competency
For the less powerful to improve their perspective-giving competency
To design mechanisms that improve organisational norms and practices around perspective-taking
I’ll be exploring each of these strategies in future posts, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear your perspective on power and collective intelligence.
Baboon: via Herbert Aust
Galinsky AD, Magee JC, Inesi ME, Gruenfeld DH. Power and Perspectives Not Taken. Psychological Science. 2006;17(12):1068-1074. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01824.x
The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction, and posterior superior temporal sulcus.
Frith CD, Frith U. The neural basis of mentalizing. Neuron. 2006 May 18;50(4):531-4. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.05.001. PMID: 16701204.
Muscatell, K. A., Morelli, S. A., Falk, E. B., Way, B. M., Pfeifer, J. H., Galinsky, A. D., Lieberman, M. D., Dapretto, M., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network. NeuroImage, 60 (3), 1771–1777. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.01.080
Kraus MW, Keltner D. Signs of socioeconomic status: a thin-slicing approach. Psychol Sci. 2009 Jan;20(1):99-106. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02251.x. Epub 2008 Dec 5. PMID: 19076316.
Kraus MW, Côté S, Keltner D. Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy. Psychol Sci. 2010 Nov;21(11):1716-23. doi: 10.1177/0956797610387613. Epub 2010 Oct 25. PMID: 20974714.
Kraus MW, Piff PK, Keltner D. Social class, sense of control, and social explanation. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Dec;97(6):992-1004. doi: 10.1037/a0016357. PMID: 19968415.
I am using ‘empathy’ and ‘perspective-taking’ rather loosely in this article. There are differences. Empathy is an umbrella term for multiple ways we connect with other people's emotions. Trying to understand what they feel and why is cognitive empathy, of which perspective-taking (the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point) is a sub-topic.
Keltner, Dacher. 2016. The power paradox: how we gain and lose influence.